The Lone Wolf

Hugo Wolf had barely a decade to produce his extraordinary output of songbooks. RUSSELL PLATT surveys some important Wolf interpreters in assessing the art of one of the most demanding of the great lieder composers.

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Composer Wolf, a "difficult, extreme personality"
© Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy 2012
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Poet Eduard Mörike
© INTERFOTO/Alamy 2012
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Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau, master interpreters of Wolf
© David Farrell/Lebrecht Music & Arts 2012

Here are three concertgoing snapshots from New York's snowless winter of 2012:

February 21: Bass-baritone Eric Owens, the Metropolitan Opera's reigning Alberich, takes a brief respite from Wagnerian exertions, scaling back his capacious voice for a recital with pianist/conductor Robert Spano at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Hall. Early in the program, he stuns the audience with a masterful performance of one of the most formidable extracts from the song repertoire, the three Michelangelo Lieder of Hugo Wolf.

February 25: At Carnegie's Stern Auditorium, Simon Rattle completes a three-concert residency with his matchless Berlin Philharmonic. On the program is Mahler's Resurrection Symphony, which, in its immensity, can easily take up an entire program. Rattle, however, precedes it with a short but piquant first half — three choral songs, with orchestral accompaniment, by Hugo Wolf, Mahler's coeval and fellow student at the Vienna Conservatory.

March 6: At the Firehouse Space, a tiny venue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, far from the glamour of Midtown Manhattan, a small but devoted audience gathers in a cozy living-room space for a concert by the Brooklyn Art Song Society. The program is as esoteric as one could imagine — Wolf's charming but seldom heard Eichendorff Lieder, complete, as well as another performance of the pitch-black Michelangelo Lieder.

For a few weeks, then, Hugo Wolf, one of the most demanding of the great song composers, was a tenacious survivor in a city that does not speak the German language with which he was so intimately engaged. What Eric Sams, the postwar dean of Wolf scholars, wrote in his 1961 book The Songs of Hugo Wolf is still true today: "The reasons for which Wolf's songs are highly prized — their literary perception, their fastidious 'declamation,' and so on — seem nicely calculated to put people off. It is human to ask what all this has to do with music." Yet it is the power of the music that makes generations of singers, and listeners, come back to these songs; no degree of literary sophistication could accomplish that, especially outside German-speaking lands, where Wolf's oeuvre still thrives. To better understand the composer's unstable yet enduring place in the American repertory, I spoke to several musicians with considerable experience in his music and spent more time with the songs than I had in years.

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Wolf exponents Robert Spano and Eric Owens at Zankel Hall in 2012
© Hiroyuki Ito 2012

Wolf was born the same year as Mahler (1860) but experienced only a whiff of his friend's eventual fame before he went insane in 1897 — the result of tertiary syphilis, which killed him in 1903. A difficult, extreme personality, he spent a few years as a piano teacher and music critic in Vienna before finally reaching his compositional maturity in 1888 with a revelatory book of songs on poetry of Eduard Mörike, a poet who had been largely ignored by Schumann and Brahms. Over barely a decade, Wolf produced songbooks inspired by poems of Eichendorff, Goethe, Gottfried Keller, and by elegant and expert translations of Spanish and Italian poetry (by Emanuel Geibel and Paul Heyse), as well as the set of translations used in the Michelangelo settings, his farewell to song. 

In chiseling his style, Wolf declared that he wanted to create music "written with blood," with a level of craft that was "unbending to the point of cruelty." The Notre Dame musicologist Susan Youens, Wolf's principal American advocate, has noted that Wolf, in many ways, was not as much of a radical as the "Wolf myth" would have us believe. Schubert had produced daring forms in such songs as "Im Walde" (D. 708); Schumann and Liszt had preceded him in giving the piano parts a heightened prominence and difficulty; and even Brahms didn't neglect matters of prosody. What contemporary critics called "new" was Wolf's idiosyncratic combination of these elements, brought to a fever pitch by the wide-ranging use of Wagnerian chromatic harmony, and by an intense commitment to the musical recreation of poetic content in both vocal declamation and richly detailed accompaniment. 

Despite his fame, he is a composer whom audiences never really demand to hear. Wolf's presence on lieder programs is not obligatory, like that of the more melodically gifted Schubert, Schumann and Strauss; Wolf ranks about equally with his arch-nemesis, Brahms, the master of abstract musical construction. (Soprano Brenda Lewis once told me, "The test of a great Brahms song is, if you took the words away, would it make a good piece for viola and piano? With Wolf it doesn't work that way at all.") And star power can only do so much. At a Carnegie Hall performance of the Italian Songbook that marked the centennial season of the composer's death, not even the promise of Angela Denoke and Thomas Quasthoff, accompanied by that indefatigable Wolfian Daniel Barenboim, could bring in a full house. 

Carnegie Hall is always packed when the Berlin Philharmonic comes to town, of course. Rattle, its music director, has joined Barenboim in taking up Wolf's cause. He led not only the choral version of "Der Feuerreiter," one of the most popular of Wolf's Mörike settings, but the Shakespeare "Elfenlied" for women's chorus and a real introuvable, the "Spring Chorus" from the unfinished opera Manuel Venegas, composed just days before Wolf lost his mind. "He has such an unusual style," Rattle told me. "He packs into one song enough material for a twenty-minute piece. Of course, we all fell in love with the music. The players asked me, is there more?" (Alas, no: Wolf's one major orchestral work, Penthesilea, is a chest-thumping but empty evocation of Liszt's tone poems. And only Wolf's effervescent "Italian Serenade" for string quartet gets him into the chamber-music scene, which Brahms still rules from the grave the way the Beatles and the Stones rule classic rock.)

Performing the choral pieces was a big surprise for Rattle, who delved into the scores looking for something to pair with Mahler's Third Symphony. "This music had a lot do with how Mahler made the second movement — you can hear it in the way the harmonies move. Or in the first part of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder!" Rattle is thinking about performing Wolf's lyrically engaging but dramatically flawed opera Der Corregidor in a concert version. (It can't be that bad: Youens has traced how Strauss may have used a duet from the opera as a model for a scene in his own Arabella.) Rattle compares this music to one of his favorite oratorios, Schumann's Paradies und die Peri: "These were pieces that aren't that popular today but that everyone knew at the time — a musical seedbed of the nineteenth century. They're almost too original for their own good."

If you search for the choral "Feuerreiter" on YouTube, you'll come up with a fine performance by a group not from Berlin but from an unexpected locale, the American heartland — the Northwest Missouri State University Tower Choir. Dr. Stephen Town, the ensemble's director, found his young singers surprisingly amenable: "A dramatization of the story sold the work to the young students. They really were excited. To me it seemed that 'Der Feuerreiter' could be staged like an opera scena." Wolf, while a special challenge, is not beyond the talents of inquisitive and attentive young singers. According to the esteemed pianist Brian Zeger, head of Juilliard's Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts, "Young singers are often drawn to [Wolf's] wonderful songs and are programming them. The necessary ingredient is an absorption in German lyric poetry — the more linguistically gifted the student, the better chance at bringing these songs to life." The distinguished collaborative pianist Martin Katz, of the University of Michigan School of Music, is emphatic: "I don't feel more vocal technique is required of the singer than for other lieder. I think Mozart and Schubert are far more demanding technically. The special challenges of Wolf are musical, intonational, psychological, not at all vocal." 

The young pianist Michael Brofman, the director of the fledgling Brooklyn Art Song Society, doesn't need to be convinced. After his performance of the Eichendorff Lieder he told me, "I'm amazed at the increasing psychological depths of the songs, of their extreme concision, as he goes through his career. Only Webern" — a devoted composer of vocal music — "is more concise. In a way, the songs are more like chamber music." Eric Owens, a young Wolfian of genius, also touches on that quality, noting, "You're not a soloist when singing Wolf, you're part of something bigger. I like singing ensembles, and Wolf's piano parts add their own voices."

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Simon Rattle, another champion of the composer, conducts the Berlin Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall
© Matt Dine 2012

"Chamber music"? "Opera scena"? The great irony and wonder of Wolf's music is that he achieves protean variety within limited means. Both Katz and Zeger treasure the Mörike Lieder and the Italian Songbook most of all, the first for its "Shakespearean depth of characterization" (Zeger) and the second for its "humanity and economy" (Katz). These qualities hint at operatic characteristics, and it is possible to evaluate Wolf's pieces by ascertaining how much each one approaches an idealized, operatic state. (The winner might well be the wordless "Italian Serenade," which conjures up an imaginary collection of buffo arias and ensembles worthy of Rossini.) 

The Italian has gained a niche in the repertory by being the only one of the major songbooks to be performed complete, with its two volumes often programmed as an imaginary two-act opera for soprano and baritone. Soprano Nancy Allen Lundy, with baritone Philip Cutlip, participated in a performance of the Italian Songbook at Woodstock's Maverick Concerts last summer that, in typical practice, offered English translations of the texts in the audience's program books. (The music director of Maverick Concerts is the conductor Alexander Platt, my twin brother.) But she recognizes the dramatic appeal of the piece: "We seriously considered having an actor read each poem before we sang it." 

The longer Spanish Songbook — two intermissions would be needed for one concert — has its own challenges: for New York Festival of Song cofounder (and Juilliard faculty member) Steven Blier, Wolf's "minute nuances of dynamics and musical spacing" are especially important in these impassioned and often thrilling songs. But the Spanish book also contains several numbers of decidedly lesser quality. The Italian, if you will, is ready for Broadway. (The light, conversational, Noël Coward quality of much of Volume II doesn't hurt.) The Spanish, however, is a show that should have been cut down in Springfield or New Haven. Angelika Kirchschlager and Ian Bostridge have the right idea: they'll sing a greatest-hits version of the collection at Lincoln Center next winter.

The brevity of Wolf's career meant that there was hardly time for a performance tradition to develop, and pianist/coaches — who, due to the unique demands of the music, must engage in an absolutely equal relationship with their singers — have strong views. The great accompanist Graham Johnson, in the exhaustive notes to his ethereal recording of the Italian Songbook, thinks it a "mistake" to "operaticize" the piece by reshuffling the order of the songs (which Wolf agonized over), much less staging them. Indeed, it's remarkable how Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, in their authoritative recording of the Spanish Songbook with pianist Gerald Moore, manage to find dramatic "sweet spots" in the musical narrative without changing Wolf's running order. (Backed by EMI and Deutsche Grammophon, Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Dieskau became the glamorous Fonteyn and Nureyev of Wolfians, popularizing the soprano-with-baritone performance pairing of the Italian and Spanish songbooks.) But Martin Katz disagrees completely: "I have done the Italian complete with two, four and eight singers and have never done so without both reordering it and semi-staging it. It's so much fun, and audiences eat it up." 

In America it is good, perhaps, that we make room only occasionally for Wolf's music; the full embrace can be exhausting, and after all, we have our own music to make. Yet Wolf's music survives not only because of its inherent excellence, but because of the distinctive atmosphere it creates. There could have been no Wolf without Schubert and Schumann, but hearing a less-than-perfect performance of the exquisitely self-centered Winterreise or Dichterliebe can seem a little like reading the parodic first page of Gombrowicz's "Diary": "Monday Me. Tuesday Me. Wednesday Me…." Wolf, for all his notorious personal egotism, stepped back from subjectivity, conjuring up a gallery of three-dimensional characters in the Mörike and Goethe collections and entire villages of dramatis personae in the Italian and Spanish books. Instead of me, me, me, we get you, me, them, us. It can be a refreshing change. spacer 

RUSSELL PLATT is a composer and a music editor at The New Yorker. 

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